This Dutchman has a successful one-man show in English. What is his secret?

Jaap Vriend (right) rehearsing with his pianist

Jaap Vriend (45) is a man of many talents. He provides communication skills seminars, trains works councils (= ondernemingsraden) in English, and he does public speaking about happiness.

Apart from all that, Jaap also stars in his own one-man theatre show about the history of Amsterdam: When Anne Frank met Rembrandt. In English! It was this show that I wanted to talk to him about.

Your show is called When Anne Frank met Rembrandt. An intriguing title! Can you tell me something about it?

In my show, Rembrandt, Anne Frank and Spinoza meet each other in heaven and have a conversation moderated by Theo van Gogh. They talk about the thing they have in common: Amsterdam.

There are jokes, and songs, and stories. Amsterdam started as a place where people needed to work together to deal with the water, and in my view, this togetherness has been apparent throughout its history. From the tolerance towards refugees throughout the centuries, to the lively LGBTQ+ community now. 

Descartes, the French philosopher, lived in Amsterdam for a while. He said “you can say and do whatever you want here in Amsterdam, as long as the Dutch can make some money”.

What gave you the idea for your show?

I always dreamed of having a one-man show. When I was 35 I thought: it’s now or never. If I wait any longer, it will just look like typical midlife crisis behaviour. So I contacted a director and made a show about happiness. 

The problem with a show like that is that after a few shows, your sources of audience members have run out. All your aunts and uncles have seen the show, there’s nobody left!

Then I had a eureka-moment: I live in Amsterdam, there’s all these tourists, and there isn’t much English-speaking theatre for them to go to. I speak English, so I thought, why not, let’s give it a go!

The tourists here are of course interested in Amsterdam and its history, so the subject that the show should be about was also immediately obvious to me.

I’ve done the show 80 times now, so I am still happy with the idea!

In my previous interview, native speaker Nigel Saych says: “do not try to be funny in a language that is not your own”. Yet you are doing exactly that! What is your secret? 

I think there is some truth to that statement, which is why I took special care when I wrote my show. 

Firstly, I drew from my background. I studied English during my first year at university in Groningen. I also spent six months travelling in Australia with three English guys, and I learned a lot about how they spoke and joked.

When it was time to write the script, I remembered the comedy maxim “say it without saying it”. For example, instead of “prostitute” I say “a lady of the night”. I spent a lot of time looking up English expressions!

After that, it was feedback, feedback, feedback.

I had a native speaker read my script, and give me feedback. One of the things he said was that English speakers keep it short. At one point in my show, Theo van Gogh informs Anne Frank she’s very famous nowadays. She replies with:  “What do you mean famous?”  I originally wrote: “What do you mean with saying I am famous, Theo.” It was too long, and a bit Dunglish (= Dutch/English, steenkolenengels). When I started rehearsing my show, my director was a Shakespearean actor, so I got feedback from him, too.

And then of course there’s the audience! A good performer always changes what he does based on the audience’s reactions. Though thank heavens, I am happy to say that by the time I had a live audience, the general reaction was pretty good.

Did you try to put on a more native-like accent for the show?

My director was of the opinion that I should change my accent, it was too Dutch. I didn’t agree. I am a Dutchman, doing a show about the Netherlands in the Netherlands for tourists who have come to Amsterdam. It would be strange if I were to put on a pretend British-English accent. I wanted to do it my own way.

Of course, I do need to pronounce English words properly. For example, after my first show I got the feedback that I was pronouncing “canal” the wrong way, so I do that correctly now. It sounds like “kuh-NAL”, with the stress on the second syllable. I also check the pronunciation of any other words I’m not 100% sure about, but I have to admit, I’m not a perfectionist.

I also make sure that I am clearly understandable. I’m a trainer in public speaking, so I know about being understandable on stage! I try to speak slowly and articulate my words, while at the same time speeding things up now and then, so it doesn’t get boring.

My audience members come from all over the world. I never know beforehand if I will have a room full of native speakers or not. I’ve had people from Iraq, Japan, South America, all over. They speak English as a second language, but the English in my show is not very difficult to understand, it’s not academic English.

I regularly get feedback from Dutch people in my audience that they have trouble understanding native speakers, but they can understand me very clearly. I guess it’s because I speak English like they speak English.

What were some interesting audience reactions?

I once had an older Dutch lady in the audience who called out after five minutes “Why is this in English? You’re Dutch, I’m Dutch, why do you have to speak English?!” I told her sorry, but my show is for expats and tourists, and they don’t speak Dutch!

As for the tourists, I get the nice ones, because they are interested in culture and history. I am lucky that I do not get the tourists who are only in Amsterdam for weed, alcohol and sex.

Having said that, I make a joke in my show where I ask the audience if anyone has visited a lady of the night (= dame van lichte zeden), and I once in all those years had a man raise his hand. He said he had been looking for love, but he didn’t find it there…

How do you do your marketing? It must be tricky, considering that tourists are only here for a short time.

I think choosing a good title was half the work. I have Anne Frank and Rembrandt in the title of my show, and those are the two people that almost everybody knows.

As for marketing, I do three posts on Instagram a week. I’m also on Tripadvisor, and I am in a list of “unforgettable activities hosted by locals in Amsterdam” on AirBnB. I got on that list very early, when there were only 20 experiences on there, those were good times. By now there are more than 400!

I don’t put leaflets out in hostels; it’s a lot of work making and distributing them, and nowadays, tourists just look on their phones when they are thinking about what to do. So the internet is where you have to reach them.

When Anne Frank met Rembrandt

Jaap Vriend’s show is called When Anne Frank met Rembrandt. You can see it once a month in Torpedo Theater, Amsterdam’s smallest theatre.

The next show will be on Friday 12 May. Tickets available here.

There are more than 130 positive reviews online, here are just a few excerpts:

It was fabulous, inventive and funny! I had an amazing time! In the end had opportunity to have a tour in this very small charming theatre! Totally recommend it! 🤩🤩🤩🤩🤩

Jaap is able to describe and talk about Amsterdam in a funny and interesting way. He captured my attention and it was a pleasure to follow his storytelling around Amsterdam and its most famous character.

The show made me feel proud to be from Amsterdam!

(…) it entangled several famous Amsterdamians in a brilliant web of intrigue and debate on issues of philosophy and history and answered beautifully the question of why Amsterdam has been such an important centre of tolerance over the ages.

For more reviews, visit Tripadvisor.

For more information about Jaap, you can visit his website or Instagram.

Jaap’s 7 tips for presenting in English

Jaap’s advice is not only for those of us who have theatrical ambitions! Here are 7 tips that will also help you when you give a presentation in English. 

Tip 1: In English, you say “please raise your hand” or “please raise your arm”, not *please stick up your finger*!

The first few times I did my show, I asked my audience to raise their finger if this was their first time in Amsterdam. I got some hesitant responses and questioning looks, so I looked it up. Turns out, in English people raise their hand, not their finger!

Tip 2: explaining difficult words can bring humour into your presentation

Having to explain a word can be awkward, but you can also use the opportunity to make the presentation lighter and more entertaining.

I have a part in my show about a heron (= reiger), a famous bird here in Amsterdam. Because I’ve noticed many people don’t know what that word means, I use audience participation to make it clear. Some people think it’s a herring (= haring), which is great to laugh about. If there is a native speaker in the audience, it can be funny to interact with them about what the bird looks like. Or I explain it myself, joking about what an ugly bird it is, with its stocky posture and its big beak. 

Tip 3: native speakers are happy when people go to the trouble to speak their language, so don’t worry too much and just speak

It is normal to make mistakes, and in my experience, native speakers are always grateful and full of admiration. The joke I often hear from native speakers is that my English is a lot better than their Dutch!

Tip 4: always adapt your presentation based on feedback

If you are going to write the whole thing out, have a native speaker or English-language professional read over your presentation. Even better: don’t write it out, but practice the presentation for a friend with good English.

If you do the same presentation multiple times, always ask for feedback from your audience, and use that feedback to improve for the next time.

Tip 5: use body language

Coming from a theatre background, this is second nature for me, but it is still a great tip. Stand up, move your arms, act things out! Body language and facial expressions can do so much to make you more understandable, especially if you are speaking in your second language. 

Tip 6: native speakers are happy to help. Let them.

If you ask them, native speakers are always happy to provide a word you can’t think of, or say how a word should be pronounced correctly. So invite the other person to help. You can do this with a little joke like “Your English is so perfect!” to lighten the mood.

Tip 7: let your audience know how happy you are that they are there. After all, you can only present because you have an audience to present to!

When it comes to my show, I give my audience a warm welcome. In fact, I treat my audience like kings, like in the expression “the customer is king”. I’m so happy that they are there, because without them, I wouldn’t have a show!

Interviews for English and the Dutch

You just read one of the interviews that I conducted for my newsletter English and the Dutch.

I interview people who work on the boundary between English and Dutch. There’s a lot of them out there! Teachers, translators, people in the tourism sector, people who promote Dutch-speaking regions abroad, and so on.

If you know someone I should interview, or if you would like to be interviewed yourself, please let me know! Just send me a message via my contact page.

Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and a translator from Dutch into English. She thinks about languages way too much, for example about how strange it is that these little blurb things are written in the third person.

Heddwen has two children, two passports, two smartphones, two arms, two legs, and two email newsletters.

English and the Dutch examines all the ways Dutch speakers interact with the English language. It has more than 800 subscribers and is growing every day. Sign up here.

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Eén reactie op “This Dutchman has a successful one-man show in English. What is his secret?”

  1. Nigel Saych

    Nigel here, from the previous interview! I want to make a comment about your comment (Nigel Saych says “do not try to be funny in a language that is not your own”)

    I stand by that statement, but of course it was in the context of a tour guide, not a comedian! People go on a tour to be informed, educated and possibly entertained, but go to a comedy show for a good laugh, and if that means the presenter slipping on linguistic banana skins, so be it!

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